The Nazi Doctors


Author: Robert Jay Lifton

Publisher: Basic Books

Dates Published: Originally 1986, this edition 2000

Pages: 561

Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide

The renowned psychiatrist’s most powerful and important book – a brilliant analysis and history of the crucial role that German doctors played in Nazi genocide. In a new introduction, Lifton considers the medicalized killing of more recent mass murders and how ordinary people become socialised to genocide.

I often asked myself ‘How could the Holocaust have happened?’. Even now, in the face of so much education on the subject, that people could be capable of such disgusting acts doesn’t seem real. While reading ‘The Nazi Doctors’ book, particularly during the descriptions of the conditions and functionality of Auschwitz, I would sometimes stop myself and think in horror ‘this actually happened, it isn’t some far fetched novel’. Lifton attempts to answers these questions through a step-by-step analysis of the events and movements that lead to such violent and catastrophic acts, and shockingly, how the intelligentsia and medical communities in Germany played such a vital role.

‘The Nazi Doctors’ is seperated into three parts:

  1. “Life Unworthy of Life”: The Genetic Cure
  2. Auschwitz: The Racial Cure
  3. The Psychology of Genocide

‘Life Unworthy of Life’ discusses the ‘build up’ to genocide, such as the political and social environment of Germany following World War I, emerging racism and the medical communities participation in Euthanasia and other forms of direct medical killing on so-called German undesirables, such as mental hospital patients and inmates.

‘Auschwitz: The Racial Cure’ deals with the formation and culmination of the death camps, including the evolution of genocide (from the firing squad Eisatzgruppen to the eventual gas chambers), with special emphasis on the ideals behind medicalising death within this transformation. The life conditions and structure of Auschwitz for prisoner and captor alike, including the famous Selections on the ramp, are also discussed extensively. The ‘medical’ work performed by Nazi Doctors, including sterilisation and experimentation, is given special attention. In ‘The Psychology of Genocide’ Lifton’s focus shifts from outlining the events to examining their potential causes.

As suggested by the title of the book, a great deal of focus is placed on Lifton’s psychoanalysis of a multitude of Nazi Doctors, some through personal meetings, others based on historical accounts and testimony from survivors. He discusses their history, motivations, Nazi involvement, roles in Auschwitz, current/past opinions, traits and family life. He also discusses in detail the roles and duties of Jewish Doctors in Auschwitz, as well as their relationships with Nazi Doctors. Every account of these interviews is multifaceted – Lifton examines their answers through many different lenses; what their answers mean as Doctors, what they mean as Germans and/or Jews and ultimately what they mean as humans.

For ‘The Nazi Doctors’ is not just an analysis of Doctors and their involvement in Holocaust; but also of the Nazis, the German populace, the nature of genocide and humanity itself from a psychological point of view.

Lifton’s language is extremely accessible; it neither seeks to illustrate points with indulgent ‘intelligent’ words nor does it have the flat feel of a school textbook. This aspect is critical to the success of ‘The Nazi Doctors’ – the meaning reaches all audiences with clarity and emphasis. The new introduction in the 2000 edition brings the significance of the study of these events into further light.

Lifton also speaks without reservation of his own aversion and then struggle, as a Jew himself, to studying this historical event. His difficulties with maintaining a professional persona whilst interviewing Nazi Doctors is discussed, as well as being able to walk the thin line between understanding their life stories, sympathising with them or seeing them only as monsters.

The sheer scope of ‘The Nazi Doctors’ is staggering. To write accurately on such a large subject Lifton had to refer to multitudes of studies, historical accounts and the knowledge of many Universities/Professors. He interviewed hundreds of people from all over the world and also visited Auschwitz itself.  The ‘Acknowledgements/Notes on the Text’ section is around 60 pages by itself. The way Lifton has interlaced quotes from all these sources into the ‘The Nazi Doctors’ is extremely skillful and a testament to his ability to transform an abundance of information into a cohesive text. I learnt a great deal more about the chronological events and people involved in WWII than I did during high school (which not only speaks of the poor quality of the Australian History curriculum, but the brilliance of this book).

This is a heavily detailed book – not a short read for those seeking a summary of events. The amount of content is necessary to create an accurate historical discussion and a worthy analysis of the situation. This, coupled with Lifton’s highly sophisticated understanding of history and humanity, is the reason why ‘The Nazi Doctors’ is an invaluable text. This is a must read for anyone interested in modern history, warfare, medical related texts, human ethics and morals.

♥♥♥♥♥ – 5/5

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4 Responses to The Nazi Doctors

  1. Pingback: The God Delusion « The Written Word

  2. e2tc says:

    This is one of *the* most frightening things I’ve ever read – though I’ve never been able to get through the entire thing. It’s just way too painful.

    I wish that people were more aware of what’s in these pages… Drawing on that old cliché about those who don’t know their history being doomed to repeat it (or however that goes – maybe not such a cliché after all…).

    • goldnsilver says:

      though I’ve never been able to get through the entire thing

      It is a very long book with a crazy amount of detail, certainly not a light read for an overview of the situation. I can definately understand how reading it can be too painful, the attrocities described are mind blowing.

      I wish that people were more aware of what’s in these pages… Drawing on that old cliché about those who don’t know their history being doomed to repeat it (or however that goes – maybe not such a cliché after all…).

      I agree. If two practical lessons could be drawn from ‘The Nazi Doctors’, they would be:

      a) how to recognise when the government, or any group, is trying to sway your opinion through propaganda and lies.

      b) how every individual must take responsibility for their actions. The majority of Nazi doctors tried to emphasize how it was never their fault, and that they were but a cog in the machine. Taking full responsibility is the only way people can be shamed into doing the right thing eg fighting, instead of participating, in genocide.

      • e2tc says:

        I think the amount of detail is absolutely necessary – these things need to be documented as thoroughly as possible.

        But for me personally, it’s overwhelming. I’m a gentile, but I grew up around people who were directly affected by the Holocaust and it is *really* hard for me to be exposed to much stuff relating to its horrors – because for me, it’s tied to actual, flesh-and-blood people.

        And there’s also the sheer evil of what these “doctors” and “nurses” were involved in, often quite willingly. That it’s the exact opposite of what all MDs pledge (in the Hippocratic Oath) is something that should never be taken lightly!

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